Earlier this year, I was happy to host a guest post by Sarah Foil about why she writes. I thought today would be a great opportunity, almost one-half through my second MFA semester, to talk to you about why I write. Each of us has our own reasons, our own inspirations, and mine are two-fold.
Why I Write: I’m An Artist
When I was in high school, I participated in a program called the Center for Creative Youth, or CCY. This program invited high school students to spend five weeks on campus at Wesleyan University over the summer, working with artists. I focused on drawing, because it was my strongest visual art.
CCY was a great program. I had fun, learned a lot, and got to explore some other art forms as well, such as storytelling through sign language and ballroom dancing. Regular practice with drawing led to some strides made with that skill, but then I put that skill aside. Why? Because I wanted to be a paleontologist. Art was just for fun at the time. I’d wanted to study dinosaurs since as far back as I could remember.
I considered myself skilled with drawing dinosaurs. I wish that I still had some of those drawings, but I said goodbye to them when I went through my first minimalist craze.
Anyway, that was back in the late nineties. In 2003, I decided paleontology wasn’t for me. More accurately, it was the math that wasn’t for me. In my program, I needed to pass calculus in order to obtain a geology degree. I’m still not sure why that was, as I recall using geometry and trigonometry in geology, but no calculus. And wouldn’t you know it? My brain just couldn’t process that kind of math.
I also happened to hate going to school where I was. I felt like a number, and after a particularly harrowing experience with the administration at my school, I felt like the worst sort of number a person can feel like: the kind that comes with a dollar sign.
I decided to transfer. New school, new major, new life. Unsurprisingly, I went back to the arts and decided to major in art education. How fast I learned that drawing is the only kind of fine art I had any raw talent in! After a year which included student observation hours, I had an existential crisis–how could I possibly teach students how to create their best fine arts when I lacked both the skill and passion to pursue any but drawing?
Caveat: Looking back on my younger self, I could have done some career research to discover that there are plenty of paths for those who can draw. Part of the reason I didn’t explore those paths was because of lackluster advisement, but I own the other half of that. At that time in my life, I was not good at advocating for myself.
By 2004, I was three years into my undergrad career, and essentially undecided. That’s when I fell in love with art history. I was required to take the first survey course, and in a class most students use as nap time, I flourished. My parents and I agreed that it was time to settle on something, regardless of career outlook, and just get my degree.
In the next two and a half years (yes, I took five and a half to get my BA), I learned a lot about art, artists, history, culture, and myself. I learned that I love learning. I learned that I love writing. Not only did I love writing, but I felt I had a spark of talent.
In January 2007, I graduated with my B.A. in Art History. I knew that I wanted to pursue writing, and while I’d discovered this in time to write for the university newspaper for one semester before graduating, I did not discover it in time to make a convincing case to change my major and stay in school for yet another two years–even if I was footing the bill via loans.
What followed was six years of taking writing courses on the side while I tried not to be broke and unhappy with my career trajectory. I worked in a number of jobs, usually offices with 9-5 roles and cubicles. There, I learned that environment is not for me. I was unhappy, and broke.
In 2013, I made a decision. If I was going to be broke all the time, I might as well be happy. Why not go for not being broke and sacrificing my happiness? Because being unhappy, to me, just isn’t worth it. What makes me happy is writing, so I enrolled to study English and Creative Writing, and in 2015, I earned my M.A.
From M.A. to M.F.A.
Is one writing degree enough? Sure. Many writers–stellar ones at that–don’t have any writing degrees. Many of them, or maybe all of them, are lifelong learners. They didn’t take on thousands in student loans to pursue learning their craft. So why did I?
Well, after taking some workshops and one-off courses, getting my M.A. was like learning there’s a world outside of my own little bubble. It opened my mind. Not only did I thirst for more of that, but I want to teach at the college level, and while many can do so with an M.A. or even a few novels under their belts, I discovered in 2015 that schools want to see that incoming teachers have experience (not surprising). The best way to get that experience was to go back to school and become a T.A.
I’m loving that, by the way, but just as exciting for me is the opportunity to study with talented mentors who are guiding me to become a stronger writer. Would I have learned many of the lessons I’ve learned so far studying solo, or just through the practice of my art? Probably. But it would have taken a lot longer, and I might have missed out on something. Besides, thrusting myself into this M.F.A. program has forced me to do what I didn’t between B.A. and M.A.: Put my art first.
Being an Artist
As an artist, it’s my job to hold a mirror to the world. It’s a cliche saying but I’ve always liked it because I personally believe that reflection and growth is the purpose of life. If the sole purpose of life was procreation, why did we bother to evolve past the amoeba stage? Being an amoeba probably isn’t that exciting, so I’m glad we’re humans, but if we’re humans for any purpose, it’s the expansion of our minds.
I write in order to do that for myself, and hopefully, for others. I write because I’m an artist, before I’m anything else. I write every day, in some capacity, because I believe in improving my skill as an artist more than I believe in any other pursuit…so I’m broke, but happy.
Why I Write: Lineage
My father wanted to be a forest ranger. I didn’t know this until my mid-twenties. In fact, I didn’t know what he’d wanted to be because he didn’t often talk about himself, his thoughts, his feelings. He liked to talk about politics. He liked to philosophize. But rarely, if ever, did his own self come out directly in those conversations.
I remember the day he told me he wanted to be a forest ranger. He was counseling me to find a good 9-5 job that would pay me a decent salary, benefits, give me vacation days, etc…and write on the side. I explained to him that I just wasn’t happy with that situation. His initial response was, “Work is work, not because it makes you happy. If it made you happy, they would call it play.”
I responded that writing is work, but it makes me happy because it feels like I’m giving something back to the world. Then I asked what he’d wanted to be, and he told me about his dreams of being a forest ranger.
He gave that dream up in order to afford to raise a family. I have two older sisters and we grew up in a comfortable setting. I don’t ever remember a time when I was a child when I had to wonder how I would be provided for, and I’m so grateful to both of my parents for that. I know, as an adult, that such a narrative isn’t common, and even though we didn’t grow up rich, many children have to worry about how they’ll eat or whether home will be safe for them. The fact that I didn’t is a mark of my privilege, true, but also a mark of my father setting aside his forest-ranging dream to work in sales.
But I don’t have children to look after, nor have I ever planned on having children to look after. I’d like to think that if I did, I wouldn’t be so selfish so as to put my own dreams ahead of their welfare. As I only have myself to look after, I’d rather focus on the immaterial needs that I crave rather than material comforts. I get by, but I’m not raking it in, either. Sometimes that causes stress in my life, but I’m willing give up financial surety and comfort for the opportunity to write more.
For the opportunity to make writing my vocation, not my avocation.
A Promise Made
In June 2016, my father was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Recovery wasn’t on the table, but he hoped that with chemotherapy, he could live out the rest of the year. However, on September 9, 2016, his battle with that disease and the chemo ended. This was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced. I’m so similar to my father in so many ways, and we were close–his loss hit hard and took us by surprise, as not three months prior to his diagnosis, he seemed fine.
Before he passed, I made him a promise: That I would immortalize him through my writing. My dream of practicing my art became, in that moment, not just my dream, but a promise. A vow. As much as I write for myself, I write for my father, and for his memory.
Why Do You Write? Why Do You Read?
Why do we do any of the things that don’t immediately serve some survival need? Because, my friends, we’re not amoeba. We’re humans, and as I said above, if we can’t expand our minds, then what are we doing here? I’m not saying that’s the only reason for living–there are many–and I’m not downplaying raising children. For those who want to raise children, I think it’s wonderful and beautiful to give so much of oneself to someone else.
My goal in sharing this post with you is, in part, to let you know me a bit better, reader to author, so that when I hold up that mirror, you’re willing to take a peek and examine what you see in the reflection.
But I ask you to think about why you do anything that you do–especially where the arts are concerned. We need the arts in our lives, in this world, but what do they mean to you? What do they give you? Ask from you? What are you willing to invest in order to flourish your relationship to the arts–any arts?